What Are Butyrate Supplements, and Can They Improve Gut Health?

Butyrate for Gut Health: Distinguishing the Truth From the Hype

Key Takeaways:

  • Butyrate supplements have been shown to help improve symptoms of IBS and traveler’s diarrhea, and to help improve bacterial balance in the gut microbiome.
  • On the other hand, butyrate supplements have been shown not to help with ulcerative colitis, and might trigger symptoms for people with certain gut problems.
  • Butyrate is produced by a healthy microbiota. It provides energy for the gut lining and may help keep the colon healthy.
  • Butyrate supplements are becoming popular. So is promoting butyrate production with prebiotic food or supplements.
  • For people who have a sensitive gut, a lower fiber regimen is better than additional fiber and butyrate.
  • Research shows the low FODMAP diet can relieve gut symptoms and offer benefits despite a probable temporary decrease in butyrate levels.
  • Focusing on reducing symptoms allows the gut to heal. You can increase the fiber in your diet (to optimize butyrate levels) in time, when your gut is healthier. 
Butyrate supplement: hands holding supplements

Butyrate is a new buzzword in gut health. Butyrate supplements and prebiotics that stimulate your gut to produce butyrate are often promoted as a way to help gut health problems, as butyrate theoretically has a number of digestive system benefits.

But does research back the benefits of butyrate supplements? In this article, we’ll look at butyrate, its functions, and whether upping your intake by taking butyrate supplements can help conditions such as IBS, dysbiosis, weight loss, and inflammatory bowel disease.

What Is Butyrate?

Butyrate (butyric acid) is a short chain fatty acid (SCFA). That means it’s a type of “good fat,” though it’s not widely found in food. Butter is the best source, but most of the butyrate in our bodies is produced by bacteria in the bowels [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Good gut bacteria that live in the colon “eat”, or ferment, fiber and carbs (such as resistant starch) our gastrointestinal tract can’t digest. This fermentation process produces SCFAs as a byproduct. Of these, butyrate is the most well known. Other common SCFAs include propionate and acetate.

Butyrate supplements, such as calcium, magnesium, or sodium butyrate supply butyrate directly, usually in tablet or capsule form. But butyrate formation can also be stimulated with foods and/or supplements that are high in fiber and prebiotics [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Prebiotics, such as resistant starch and fructose-oligosaccharides found in food and supplements can feed butyrate-producing gut bacteria, in turn increasing the amount of butyrate that is available in the gut.

How Butyrate Works in the Body

Butyrate is the primary energy source for colon cells, known as colonocytes, that line the inside of the bowel (colon or large intestine) [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

In vitro (lab) and in vivo (animal and/or human) studies have shown that butyrate:

Pros and Cons of Butyrate Supplements

Woman with an abdominal pain

 Supplements of butyrate are fairly new, so we’re still learning what effects they may have. Current studies suggest several potential benefits but some reasons to be cautious too. 

When it comes to taking butyrate supplements, the rationale is essentially that more butyrate = better gut health. However, this is not necessarily true in all cases. For example, while patients with certain types of digestive conditions have been shown to have lower levels of butyrate in their guts, patients with other conditions have been shown to have higher levels. In other words, more butyrate doesn’t automatically equal better gut health. 

A few clinical trials have shown that butyrate can help to improve symptoms of IBS, diverticulitis, and traveler’s diarrhea. However, there is much more evidence to support interventions like the low FODMAP diet — which may actually decrease butyrate levels — for the treatment of IBS, SIBO, and other digestive conditions. 

The bottom line is that while butyrate supplements may offer benefits in some cases, they’re not the first step if you’re experiencing digestive symptoms. And if you do try a butyrate supplement, make sure to monitor your symptoms. That way, you can see if they’re improving, staying the same, or worsening. If the latter occurs, of course, you’ll want to discontinue supplementation.

The Good News 

Bacterial imbalances and dysbiosis: Studies show that butyrate supplements can increase the levels of “good” microbes such as Akkermansia muciniphila, Butyricicoccus and Lachnospiraceae [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

IBS (irritable bowel syndrome): A 2013 RCT involving 60 patients with IBS found that 12 weeks of sodium butyrate supplementation (on top of standard medicinal therapy) was associated with significantly decreased abdominal pain, reduced pain during bowel movements, and less constipation compared to placebo supplementation [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Diverticulitis: A 2014 RCT found that 12 months of supplementation with sodium butyrate (300 mg per day) was associated with a significantly decreased episodes of diverticulitis (acute inflammation of pouches that can form in the intestine) compared to a control group. Subjective quality of life was also higher in the sodium butyrate group compared to the control group [13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Traveler’s diarrhea: Sodium butyrate (250 mg per day) taken for three days in combination with other SCFAs before and during traveling was associated with a reduced risk of abdominal symptoms like pain, bloating, nausea, and fevers [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

The Bad News

Obesity and impaired glucose tolerance: However, levels of butyrate seem higher in obese people [15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 16 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. So, consuming extra butyrate in the form of supplements probably isn’t a good idea if you already have weight issues, diabetes, or metabolic syndrome.

  • A 2019 observational study involving 441 adults found that higher fecal butyrate levels were significantly associated with obesity, high blood pressure, poor metabolic health (including raised  cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar), more gut permeability (a leaky gut), and gut dysbiosis [17 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • In animal research, butyrate supplements given to pregnant and lactating rats induced insulin resistance and fat deposition in the offspring [18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Ulcerative colitis: A 2021 systematic review of eight separate trials involving 227 patients with ulcerative colitis found that, on balance, butyrate enemas did not help the condition [20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

  • Only one trial showed improvement in disease activity compared to controls. 
  • Butyrate treatment did not significantly improve inflammation or the health of tissues examined via endoscopy (a camera down the throat).

Autism in children: Increased levels of SCFAs in the bloodstream due to increased gut permeability or abnormal microbiota may actually be detrimental to children with autism. 

  • While the underlying issue here is much more likely to be the leaky gut and dysbiosis, it still seems wise for pregnant women and infants not to be exposed to large amounts of supplemental butyrate or other SCFAs [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Are Prebiotic Supplements Safer? 

Prebiotic-rich diets and supplements, or eating a diet rich in fibrous foods such as fruits, vegetables, and beans, is in theory a healthier way to enhance bacterial production of butyrate in the gut [21 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

But while a high-fiber diet is a key way to feed the gut microbes and optimize butyrate production in healthy people, it can have the opposite effect in people who already have compromised gut health.

Many people with bloating and gut sensitivity find their symptoms worsen with the intake of some types of carbohydrates and dietary fibers. In these people, a low FODMAP diet (which minimizes the intake of carbohydrates and fibers that can trigger gut sensitivities) is often a much safer and more effective option.

Strong research supports that the low FODMAP diet can:

How the Low FODMAP Diet Works

Butyrate supplement: FODMAP Food List

The low FODMAP diet is an elimination diet that cuts out fermentable carbohydrates found in foods such as wheat, milk, onion, mangos, asparagus, and garlic. There are three main phases of the diet:

  1. Elimination: During this initial stage of the diet, you avoid high FODMAP foods for up to three weeks in order to obtain quick relief of symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea.
  2. Food reintroduction: In the reintroduction phase, you test one high FODMAP food at a time in order to identify which FODMAP foods most aggravate your symptoms.
  3. Personalizing and maintaining: In this phase, you use what you’ve learned during the elimination and reintroduction phases to broaden your diet (as long as symptoms stay reduced).

The low FODMAP diet has been shown to temporarily reduce butyrate production as well as gut microbiota diversity. Gut bacteria diversity is usually a sign of a robust and healthy gut flora [25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. However, it’s still a much better option than increasing prebiotic fiber intake and/or taking butyrate supplements for people who have recent gut issues. 

This helps us to see that higher butyrate levels are not necessary for better gut health or improved symptoms: On a low FODMAP diet, symptoms often significantly improve, even if butyrate levels are decreased. 

In one randomized controlled trial, short-chain fatty acids and butyrate were significantly lower after people began a low FODMAP diet, but signs of inflammation were also significantly lower — a sign that the gut is beginning to heal [25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Later on, when your gut has begun healing and you have built up some tolerance, you can very likely reintroduce and consume enough healthy high fiber foods to optimize butyrate production.

Probiotics Supplements Are Tried and Tested

Probiotic bacteria

Before experimenting with butyrate supplements, it makes sense for people with inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and other gut issues to take a well-formulated broad spectrum probiotic supplement. Extensive research shows that they can:

A recent literature review to determine the effect of probiotics on butyrate and other SCFA production in the microbiome found only one study involving humans where butyrate and other SCFAs increased [34 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

The same review found cell and animal studies where butyrate production increased from taking probiotics. However all the other other clinical trials, which involved both healthy and unwell patients did not mention increases in butyrate from supplementing with Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria probiotics.

Though probiotics are really useful for gut health, it appears that increasing butyrate isn’t a primary route of action.

The Bottom Line on Butyrate Supplements

Butyrate undoubtedly has important roles to play in gut health. Ordinarily (in people with robust gut health), a varied diet including different plant fibers and prebiotics will help your gut bacteria create optimal levels of butyrate without the need for butyrate supplements.

However, for a sensitive gut, strong, research-based evidence supports cutting down on fermentable carbs and fibers through a low FODMAP diet. 

Research suggests butyrate supplements can have some positive effects on gut health but may have negative effects in some situations, particularly in obesity where levels are often already raised anyway.

My book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You, has a comprehensive step-by-step plan for gut healing. Or, for more individualized gut health and support, request a consultation.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high quality probiotics to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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➕ Links & Resources

Further Reading:

  • Butyrate Producing Probiotics
  • Butyrate Benefits

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